Depicted and personified across centuries and cultures as an elderly bearded man dressed in a robe and carrying an hourglass, the scythe of Father Time came down once again and this time at the expense of one of the greatest exponents in all of modern sports – Roger Federer.
Even though the brutal nature of the truth about Federer’s finite days at the top had been staring all of us in our faces for a long time, it still ended up hitting like a wrecking ball now that it was out in the open.
With equal parts grief and equal parts gratitude taking centre-stage involving any and all discussion surrounding the great man from Switzerland whose laurels are too great to be even described or recounted, the discomforting knowledge of him deciding to hang up his shoes slipped into an even more eerie and sinister thought: the Golden Age of tennis had reached its crescendo long ago and its final stretches are now well upon us.
There have been signs of it scattered all throughout the year. The mercurial Serena Williams was the first to fall. She stayed true to announcement in her Vogue feature from a month ago and sent the entirety of a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium into brazen wailing and wallowing of nostalgia with her final hurrah at the US Open against Ajla Tomljanović.
Barely had the world of tennis fandom recovered from the loss of the jewel when arguably the most prized of its treasures, Roger Federer dropped a bombshell disguised as a voice note and a heart-warming letter on social media to announce that the Laver Cup would be his final bidding at the highest level in the sport.
Coming from a man who embodied the lofty ideals of tennis and one who has almost transcended it with this body of work resembling an expressionist painter more than a tennis star, this wasn’t just a retirement post. It was a 21st-century cultural reset.
Think about all the families whose lives were touched by the mysticism of Federer’s backhands on the hallowed green surfaces of Wimbledon, all the young boys and girls who sported white bandanas and held racquets bigger than their bodies to emulate their idol and made it their life’s mission to witness Federer live in action and how infants born today will now grow up in a world where the Swiss is no longer synonymous with the word tennis.
If the fans thought that the 12 months of tennis without the Swiss sensation in action was a dull place, they are in for a reality check when the red carpet eventually rolls out at the Laver Cup in the final week of September.
"I wish this day would have never come,” said his on-court nemesis and off-court friend Rafael Nadal with a certain Tolkienesque elegance in his farewell letter to Federer.
Coming to Nadal himself, the 35-year-old turned back the clocks as he dug deep into his endless reservoir of grit, mental fortitude, sweat, grunts, and tears to fight back from a two-set deficit and win the Australian Open after over five hours of an epic final showdown against a much younger and hungrier opponent in Daniil Medvedev earlier this year.
Even as he continues to battle with his once-luxurious hair growing thinner and his knees no longer carrying his explosiveness in the way it did five years ago, Nadal came, Nadal saw, and Nadal conquered at the ochre-hued turf of Roland Garros which has been a stomping ground for him throughout his career.
The win over Casper Ruud in the French Open final gave Nadal the lead in the Grand Slam race with 23, as Novak Djokovic and Federer lag behind with 22 and 21 respectively.
However, as fancy as the idea of a bald Nadal in his 50s still whipping out his forehand over his head like a lasso and showing the younger generation how it’s actually done sounds, even his body is showing signs of formidable wear and tear.
A severe foot injury kept him out of the mix for much of last year and to plenty of dejection, the Spaniard withdrew from the Wimbledon 2022 semi-finals after suffering a seven-millimeter abdominal tear in his quarter-final victory over Taylor Fritz. As setbacks continue to mount and his body is no longer able to listen to the demands of his unfazed mind, how much longer can Nadal continue to be the Nadal we all long for and revere?
The answer to that could lie in his own words after his Round of 16 exit in the US Open at the hands of Frances Tiafoe, his first Grand Slam loss in 2022. "I need to go back. I need to fix things. I don't know when I going to come back. I am going to try to be ready mentally. When I feel that I will be ready to compete again, I will be there.
"Now I have to go home, I have more important things than tennis to attend to. Decisions will be made based on how everything goes in my personal life, which comes before my professional life. It's been a bit difficult for a few months but I want to finish the year with something very important, that is, my first child,” said Nadal, casting a major shadow of doubt on his own future in the sport.
And then there’s Novak Djokovic whose case is rather peculiar. A player who spent the majority of his formative years in tennis yearning for adoration from fans after forcing plenty of upsets against the demigods in Federer and Nadal, and eventually joining their league to form the Big Three and extending the Golden Age, Djokovic now finds himself at a spot of bother in his career.
His infamous and adamant refusal to take the COVID-19 vaccine has been the cause of much scorn and derision among sports fans and the fiasco of his deportment from Australia accompanied with his outdated outlook is bound to chip away at his otherwise magnificent legacy of defining single-minded determination in the sport.
With the majority of countries where tennis’ biggest events are held continuing to refuse Djokovic admission on the grounds of vaccine policies, the Serbian seems to be at peace with his decision even though it is taking an inevitable toll on his career and alienating a large section of his fanbase.
At the Wimbledon this year, however, where Djokovic was allowed to take part, he showed that he was far from being done. Recovering from a flawless start made by opponent Nick Kyrgios, the 35-year-old typified the clutch mentality that has been the foundation of his all-time great career and smothered the Australian to win his fourth consecutive Wimbledon title, joining an elusive list of Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras, and of course, Federer.
The youngest of the Big Three and the one who has the best chance to finish with the most Grand Slams in men’s tennis, it is quite ironic now that Djokovic’s fate depends on how the pandemic, at its fag end, rolls out and whether countries are in a position to change their vaccine policies and allow him to compete in the first place.
For over two decades, the world of tennis sparkled and shone as the rich quartet of stars brought in people by the thousands to seats in the stadiums and millions of eyeballs to television sets, DVRs, and eventually, live-streaming networks. With distinctive playing styles and very different personalities, there was something for every fan to consume.
For grace and elegance, Federer. For power and precision, Nadal. For determination and comebacks, Djokovic. And for dismantling traditions and breaking down stereotypes, Williams.
As they enthralled from courts of grass and clay, to hard and blue, and across countries and continents, tennis grew in their golden glow and the unalterable hierarchy of players defined an unmistakable and extremely remarkable Golden Age in the 21st century.
“I wish this day would never come,” said Nadal to Federer and Frodo to Gandalf the Grey. With the final notes of the Golden Age now in procession as the symphony longs to a quiet close after a resplendent crescendo, the answer lies in Gandalf’s wise words, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
If this is the end of the big Four in Tennis and the Golden Age they ushered, then it has been the joy of a lifetime.
(Anjishnu Roy is a freelance sports writer and journalist. When he's not busy trying to capture the highs and lows of professional sports through words, he's probably raving about a Denis Villeneuve or Asghar Farhadi film.)
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